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Learning to Lead

ORNL summer intern Yue Yuan
Pictured: Fiber and Polymer Science Ph.D. student Yue Yuan, interning this summer at ORNL

By Cameron Walker

Over the past year, almost two dozen women at the Wilson College of Textiles have benefited from professional development grants through the Ellen Rohde Leadership Initiative. Female students, faculty and staff have been able to network and learn through travel to conferences, workshops and research opportunities worldwide as a result of these grants, honing their leadership skills and widening their career paths. 

“For me, developing leadership skills is much more successful through participation and experiences,” said Ellen Rohde, who currently serves on the North Carolina Textile Foundation Board of Directors (NCTF). “Having the opportunity to understand your leadership style, accelerate your strengths and know what you need to work on helps all young people gain the confidence they will need when given the opportunity to participate in a leadership role. Those learnings are hard to develop in a traditional classroom, lecture hall or through books.”

I view the endowment as the perfect complement to the world class faculty and staff, facilities and research projects offered to students who want to make societal contributions throughout their lives.

In an effort to expand opportunities for the women of the Wilson College of Textiles, Rohde made an endowment gift to NCTF that will support their leadership development through grants and an annual seminar day.

“The combination of grants and an annual seminar day seemed particularly strong in sending the message that married the strategic plan of the college and my own personal goals,” said Rohde. “I view the endowment as the perfect complement to the world class faculty and staff, facilities and research projects offered to students who want to make societal contributions throughout their lives.”

Inaugural Year

The first year’s grants have funded opportunities such as Fashion and Textile Management (FTM) student Hannah Ziegler’s attendance at the 2018 Girlboss Rally women’s conference in New York City. 

“To say that [the rally] changed my life would be a complete understatement,” she said. “I came home inspired and armed with a wealth of knowledge on topics directly related to my major and interests, such as brand management, PR and marketing, as well as personal advice including investing, self-care and entrepreneurship. I received insight on the future of the fashion industry, media, and marketing from the perspective of top executives in these fields. In addition, this conference granted me the opportunity to meet and develop lasting connections with women from 31 countries, various backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions who share one common goal: to make the world a better place through their services and product offerings.”

Radhika Vaid, pursuing her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science, gave a poster presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Biomaterials in Seattle, Washington. 

“Experienced professors and industry representatives stopped by my poster and gave valuable feedback… [and I] interacted with company representatives from Tesco Associates, Zeus Medical, Spraybase, Evonik and Advanced Biomatrix at their booths in the meeting,” she said. “This has given me the chance of networking and exploring career opportunities for [my] future in the industry. Further, I could interact with fellow students and scientists from around the globe.”

Textile Technology Management Ph.D. student Hanna Lee attended the International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) annual conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Participation in this prestigious conference significantly helped me personally and professionally in developing academic expertise as well as in preparing a next career,” she said.

TATM professor Marguerite Moore traveled to the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark to learn more about sustainable fashion and corporate responsibility. Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) assistant professor Ericka Ford gave a talk and presented a poster at the meeting of The Fiber Society at the University of California, Davis. TATM professor Karen Leonas attended the Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI).

A new round of grants will be awarded this fall. Those interested in pursuing a professional development opportunity through the Ellen Rohde Leadership Initiative should submit an application during the next call for proposals, which will be announced by email. 

The other component of Rohde’s gift is the annual leadership summit. The inaugural summit was held this past March, including a luncheon, a panel discussion, a graduate seminar and a reception. The keynote speaker was Pamela McCauley, an entrepreneur, author and professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida, where she leads the Human Factors in Disaster Management Research Team.

Ellen Rohde
Ellen Rohde


Rohde was the first woman to be named president of an operating division at VF Corporation, an apparel and footwear company comprising diverse brands including The North Face, Vans and Dickies. Early in her career, she participated in a leadership program for high potential employees; several years later, she became the president of HealthTex, one of VF’s operating divisions at the time, and went on to serve as president of two other divisions. 

“I liken my career at VF as being given an MBA in Textile and Apparel Management and a Ph.D. in Business Management,” she said. “My undergraduate degree from Michigan State University was in education, so finding my passion in the textile and apparel world was a real surprise. I definitely was on a high learning curve but had a ton of curiosity to learn and a flexible attitude about living anywhere that allowed me to grow as a person. VF recognized my potential so we were a good match. They needed leaders for the corporation to grow and I would go anywhere and learn anything.”

Ten years ago, while still employed at VF, she was invited to join the Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management (TATM) Industry Advisory Board.

“I learned so much about the college and what its competitive advantages are for graduates,” she said. “The last five years, I have served as a board member of NCTF, which has shown me the importance of financial support for the college — and how students and faculty benefit from continued support through the foundation.”

Rohde’s gift draws a parallel with the opportunity afforded her through the VF leadership program. She is giving back in the same way, providing women at the Wilson College of Textiles with the means to expand their knowledge base and develop their leadership and soft skills. 

I believe that all avenues of society need to take advantage of all individual talent,” she said. “Women can make major contributions if given the opportunity. I experienced both tremendous support and some serious doubt by people throughout my career. I am just trying to help women of today’s world suppress the doubters and showcase their talents!” 

Yue Yuan and Flora Meilleur at ORNL
Yue Yuan and Flora Meilleur at ORNL | Photo credit: ORNL/Genevieve Martin

One Student’s Story

We talked with Yue Yuan, who is working toward her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science, about the research opportunities she has been able to pursue with help from the Ellen Rohde Leadership Initiative. She spent one week at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which, according to its website, is “the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory, conducting basic and applied research to deliver transformative solutions to compelling problems in energy and security.” 

At ORNL, Yuan trained to use primary tools for protein structure analysis in solution by mentor Flora Meilleur, a structural biologist specializing in protein chemistry and neutron crystallography. She returned this summer as a Nuclear Engineering and Science Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) graduate intern in the Large Scale Structure Group, Neutron Scattering Division; Center of Structural Molecular Biology (CSMB). 

Please tell us about your current research.

I am working on enzyme immobilization using biopolymers in TECS associate professor Sonja Salmon’s research group. Our project involves developing biocatalytic fibrous materials, mainly for low energy carbon dioxide scrubbing. For the material development, I am also working on novel characterization methods for protein (enzyme)-polymer interaction, in order to optimize our biocatalytic fibrous materials.

How did you find out about the Ellen Rohde professional development grants?

I heard about this grant from my PI, Dr. Salmon. After receiving the invitation of an ORNL lab visit from Dr. Meilleur, my Ph.D. committee member as well as a lead instrument scientist at ORNL, Dr. Salmon suggested [that I] apply this grant to cover the cost of the research visit.

Can you talk a little bit about the value of your research visit?

After receiving the invitation of a lab tour, the grant came in and allowed me to solidify a week-long research visit to ORNL. 

Knowing what I am doing for my Ph.D. studies, Dr. Meilleur made a special itinerary based on my research questions, and I met with her every day after meetings with scientists at ORNL. After getting my feedback and updated questions at the end of each day, she scheduled more scientists that might answer my new questions. This makes my research visit valuable, efficient and special. 

After working with her, I also realize how important networking is as a researcher in an interdisciplinary area. Dr. Meilleur is a protein crystallographer, but she used her network at ORNL to help me build connections and potential collaborations with experts from protein/polymer characterization, material engineering, chemistry and neutron scattering. This visit also inspired me to step outside my comfort zone and to learn how to be a female leader in the scientific field: being dedicated to research, being active in collaboration and willing to help the next generation.

How did you parlay your research trip into an internship?

I have to say I am a “lucky” graduate student because three female leaders and scientists made this a valuable visit for me. 

First of all, the grant allows me to bring my research questions in person to these scientists at ORNL. I was well prepared in Dr. Salmon’s group. We are developing sustainable fibrous materials for CO2 scrubbing, so the research topic itself attracts scientists’ attention here at ORNL. Working in Salmon’s group also allows me to try various techniques on the NC State campus, so I am clear about what I need to ask while I am meeting with the scientists. 

In addition, I Skyped with Dr. Meilleur several times before my visit in order to plan the meetings. She suggested preparation work, which also helped my communication with scientists on site. Therefore, the conversations during the visit went smoothly and some scientists got interested in what I am doing and suggested me [for the internship] as a pilot study/learning experience.

What are you learning this summer?

I am doing the isotope labeling of biopolymers [over the] summer, in order to characterize the structural stability of enzymes in a polymeric system using a neutron probe.  Beyond the regular lab-based research under the mentoring of scientists and a team supervisor, I have opportunities for many workshops, symposiums and training at ORNL. I got mentoring on the techniques I am going to use for my study and the proposal writing for the (neutron) beam time.

I have met outstanding peers who share the same passion and new mentors from different research institutes who give me valuable suggestions for both science and career development. In addition, I have access to many career connection opportunities, which allows me to meet with the recruiters and work on my packages for future job searching.  

This intern experience is valuable and important to me at this stage. It encourages me to think about being a leader in the field of science, in addition to being a good researcher [and] it also provides important information on how to achieve leadership in science. 

Read more about Yuan’s time at ORNL.

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Written by Cameron Walker